Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Air Force museum marks century of military aviation

Christchurch’s Air Force Museum of New Zealand is about to celebrate 100 years since the birth of New Zealand military aviation at Wigram.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) dates back to 1937, but the full history of military aviation in New Zealand goes back even further than that.

Museum Research Curator, Simon Moody said it all began just before the First World War when local businessman and former Mayor of Christchurch, Sir Henry Wigram, visited Europe and witnessed the huge strides taking place in aviation.

Sir Henry Wigram (centre with bowler hat) with Lieutenant Colonel AV Bettington, lighting a pipe.

Keenly aware of the potential of both military and civilian aviation, in 1915, Sir Henry, – who was also a long-serving member of the Legislative Council – opened the Canterbury Aviation Company, New Zealand’s second flying school, on land he bought at Sockburn. 

“Sir Henry was one of the individuals instrumental in promoting New Zealand’s understanding of the part air power would play in future combat,” said Mr Moody.

The New Zealand Permanent Air Force (NZPAF) was established on 14 June 1923 and a week later the New Zealand Government purchased a large portion of Sockburn Airfield from Sir Henry Wigram, at a much subsidised price, which would subsequently be renamed Wigram in his honour.  

Wigram is now the site of the Air Force Museum and a centenary exhibition entitled NZPAF100: The Origins of New Zealand Air Power will open to the public on 9 June at the museum. It will tell the story of how New Zealand went from no standing air force, to the formation of the NZPAF, then on to the foundation of the RNZAF as it is today. 

Personnel re oiling an Avro 504k at Wigram aerodrome. R. Meynell up ladder.

Mr Moody has extensively researched the formation of NZPAF and said it was a complicated tale with lots of twists and turns, victories and setbacks.

“This exhibition is about the story of how, 100 years ago, the first steps towards the RNZAF we know today were taken. It looks at what caused the NZPAF to be formed in 1923 at Wigram as part of the Army, and how military aviation developed over the next 15 years.”

“While the anniversary of the creation of an independent Air Force – the RNZAF in 1937 – remains our official birthday, this centenary is the basis of that milestone 86 years ago. It marks the founding of our first air base, at Wigram, where the museum stands today,” he said.

Pieces of the exhibition being photographed to promote the NZPAF100: The Origins of Military Air Power. The exhibition is due to open 9 June 2023 at the Airforce Museum of New Zealand in Christchurch

The exhibition will acknowledge the experience of around 800 New Zealanders who served in the air or as ground staff for Britain and Australia in the First World War. It shows that some of those individuals were integral to the development of military aviation in New Zealand during the 1920s and ‘30s.

He said this part of history for the RNZAF was important as it helps in understanding how the RNZAF became a separate service.

“The contributions of the pioneering aviators who preceded and then often led it in the early years help us appreciate the context in which military aviation developed in New Zealand between the World Wars.

“It also bridges the gap between those few New Zealanders who served in the British military air services in the First World War and the creation of the citizen RNZAF in time for the Second World War,” Mr Moody said.  

The NZPAF100: The Origins of Military Air Power exhibition will run for six months.

The Museum will celebrate the centenary with a public Gala Day on 17 June at the Air Force Museum.

For more information visit: www.airforcemuseum.co.nz.

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